They dug us out. They gave us shelter.
They saved our roofs. They saved our lives.
Throughout the back-to-back storms that smothered the heart of Erie County last week with more snow that any of us could ever have imagined, ordinary people took on extraordinary tasks.
Firefighters from the city and volunteer companies from the suburbs. Police officers and troopers. Highway crews and sanitation workers. Doctors, nurses, EMTs, tow truck drivers, plow operators, meteorologists, restaurant workers and hotel staff. Spouses, sons and daughters, and strangers who had never met set aside their own comfort and safety to help another soul.
The Buffalo News put out a call on social media for nominations for heroes of the storm. An avalanche of responses poured in.
There were the Buffalo firefighters who carried a patient a mile through the snow to get to a hospital and helped deliver a baby in a firehouse.
There was the state trooper, who in the course of one day, helped an Orchard Park man whose finger was chopped off by a snowblower, aided a man suffering seizures and then worked with a strike force of other law enforcement to rescue five people, including a 17-month-old baby, who were snowbound in an ambulance on Route 219.
Abbey Moses of Hamburg nominated the firefighters who came in from Allegheny, Barre, Galway, New York City, Rochester and her own local volunteers with the Hamburg Volunteer Fire Department, who trudged their way through snow to lend a hand.
Frank Gullo, president of the Reserve Hose Fire Company, nominated his fellow volunteer firefighters who worked round-the-clock after the storm hit, responding to calls on foot through snowdrifts and spending nights on cots.
Al Scioli wrote a letter to the editor, thanking the Big Tree Fire Department for shoveling him out and taking him to get medical care.
Paul Wilson, a Lake Shore firefighter and Assistant Fire Coordinator, was commended for his work coordinating transporation for dialysis patients. He managed to arrange for an Amtrak train to take two people who needed life-saving surgeries in Cleveland.
Erin Bruce Aquilina showed herself to be a fairy godmother to many when she created a Facebook group called WNY November 2014 Storm that connected people who needed help with those eager to offer some.
And there were the people who saved strangers, like Michael Weazer and his girlfriend, Brittany Leighbody, of Brant who let Jay Lloyds of Toronto, whose Porsche couldn’t make it through the snow, stay at their home for three days.
They were our snow angels.
Here are a few of the many, many stories The News has heard since the storm.
‘A lot of heroes’
When Clarence Center and Twin District volunteer firefighters finally fought their way through 5 feet of snow to get to a man trapped outside during the storm in Lancaster, they were astonished at what they found.
Just the man’s head was poking out of the snow. He wasn’t dressed for the weather, and it was clear he was suffering from severe hypothermia.
It had taken a Herculean effort just to make it to the apartment complex off Transit Road on Nov. 18, and how the Clarence Center firefighters came to the rescue in Lancaster is a story itself.
The Lancaster Volunteer Ambulance Corps had long given up on trying to get ambulances to emergencies during the raging storm.
“We had already tried once. The ambulance got stuck in the snow for like six hours,” said Jeff Bono-Queeno, vice president of the ambulance corps.
With the ferocious storm dropping snow at a rate of 4, 5, even 6 inches per hour, the ambulance corps had switched to its disaster plan – the ambulances were stationed at volunteer fire halls and firefighters would have to bring the patients to them. From there, they could get the patients to a hospital safely.
“Like an army rescue situation,” Bono-Queeno said.
That morning, the Clarence Center Volunteer Fire Company already had come to assist Twin District Volunteer Fire Company in Lancaster. It was a good thing – Clarence Center had snowmobiles and an all-terrain type vehicle with snowmobile tracks.
Bono-Queeno shared what happened next.
After getting the call, the firefighters from the two companies headed out on their snow equipment to where the man was stuck. Transit Road was closed to traffic, buried under 5 feet of snow. The crew arrived at an apartment complex tucked about a quarter mile away from the road.
Even the snowmobiles couldn’t make it through the driveway, so the firefighters hiked in.
That’s where they found the man buried in snow up to his head. They dug him out, carried him to a nearby apartment and rushed him inside. The firefighters called in to the ambulance corps squad room and were connected to the medical director, Dr. Joe Bart, who gave them directions on how to treat the man.
It was clear the man had to get to a hospital fast, but there was no way to even get him back to the waiting snowmobiles. What they needed was something that could plow a path from the road to the apartment. Something big.
It occurred to them that some of the big box stores along Transit have high-lift payloaders for plowing out parking lots and the ambulance crew started making calls.
They kept being told no.
“Finally, we called Wegmans on Transit,” Bono-Queeno said. “We barely told them what was happening and they said: ‘What do you need?’ ”
The Wegmans high-lift driver steered the giant payloader down to the scene and cleared a path all the way through. The firefighters got their snowmobiles and brought them in and laid the hypothermic man in a trailer with a shell and pulled him out to Transit, and then over to Broadway, where an ambulance was waiting.
The EMTs on board immediately began treating him. He was in rough shape. His circulation had slowed so badly that, when they tried to prick his finger for a blood sugar test, none came out. They later learned he had been stuck in the snow for more than two hours.
The ambulance whisked him up Transit to Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital.
“Think about it,” Bono-Queeno said. “You have six groups of people, private citizens, fire companies and an ambulance company all doing their bit on this horrible day to save one man’s life. That’s a lot of heroes.”
Mark Underberg has a snowmobile and two tractors, plus a 6-foot snowblower that goes on the back of it.
“I have a considerable driveway where I live,” he said of his home in Springville.
Last week, he put them all to more use than he had ever dreamed he would.
That Tuesday, as it became clear that the lake-effect storm was far more serious than anyone had imagined, his wife heard on the radio a call for help for anyone with a snowmobile.
Underberg’s daughters packed up a backpack with some food, and he drove out on his snowmobile from Springville into the Snow Belt. He checked on cars he saw stranded on Route 219 to make sure there was no one inside and went to Southwestern Boulevard, where he gave rides to anyone who needed one.
“There was a guy who had been walking for six hours,” he said.
The next day, he tracked down a friend who was stranded at work and brought him back to Springville. He was going to head back out, but the skis on the snowmobile were shot. So the next morning, he headed out in one of his tractors. He made his way to his cousin’s home in Hamburg and plowed out her neighbors. He pulled some people out from the snow near a traffic circle, including a police officer and a volunteer firefighter.
“Then I just started hitting any driveway where I could drive my tractor,” he said.
As he plowed out driveways, neighbors rushed out and asked what he was charging.
“If people wanted to give me a tip, that was fine but I wasn’t worried about it,” he said.
Some people asked him to stay for dinner. He politely declined but was happy to accept bottled water and a granola bar or two.
He stayed in the Snow Belt through Saturday. In all, he thinks he plowed out about 100 driveways. Among them was a guy whose truck and fancy sports car got stuck. The man looked a little familiar, and Underberg was told later that it was Fred Jackson of the Buffalo Bills.
But the most gratifying moment, Underberg said, was when a boy, maybe 8 or 9 years old, walked up to his tractor, looked up and said, “Thank you.”
Cayleen Dolan’s boyfriend was two days overdue for dialysis when he woke up from a nap on Thursday, Nov. 20, looking dangerously pale.
“He didn’t look well,” she said of Larry Dole, who is on a kidney transplant list.
Dolan, Dole and their nearly 3-year-old daughter, Hayden Dole, were snowbound in their home on Gold Street in Lovejoy. There was no telling when they would be plowed out and Dolan was worried. She called 911.
Soon, the flashing lights were outside their window, and a firefighter from West Seneca who was helping out at a nearby Buffalo firehouse came in the door.
“My daughter was freaking out,” Dolan said.
The stress over the back-to-back storms, her father’s worsening condition and now this strange man in their house had the little girl in a state of total panic.
The firefighter, Clark Reinard, looked at the girl.
“I miss this age,” he said to Dolan. “Do you mind if I go help her?”
Reinard, in his turnout gear, sat down next to little Hayden and picked up some books she had been reading earlier. He began to read to her. He read a Curious George book, and a few others. Dolan snapped a photo of the precious moment. Soon the ambulance arrived and took Dole to the hospital.
Dolan and her daughter went too. While there, Hayden worked on a craft. She painted a star with the words “To my hero.”
Rx for snow emergencies
Cy’s Elma Pharmacy was technically closed during the snowstorms, but with so many vital prescriptions needing to be filled, John Rutowski and his staff showed up anyway to get the job done. Firefighters from Elma and Marilla showed up on snowmobiles to pick up medicines for the snowbound. Rutowski’s workers even made some home deliveries.
It was on that Friday, after at least 5 feet of snow had fallen on their very flat roof, that Rutowski started hearing some strange creaking sounds. No one else did, so he didn’t pay much mind.
But at about 5 p.m., he was in the store with the store manager, John Doyle, when they heard a large bang. They shut off the power and the water but waited at the store. Firefighters were coming to pick up one last prescription for someone who was recovering from open heart surgery and desperately needed antibiotics.
They made the handoff, and then headed back to their homes. Rutowski dropped off another prescription, zigzagged his way home, getting stuck once, and was about to sit down to dinner, when he got the call that the whole roof had collapsed.
He headed back to the store on Bowen Road.
The next morning, he was able to arrange to reopen his pharmacy in an empty shop on the other end of the shopping plaza.
“We had about 30 people, employees from other stores, neighbors, help carry boxes from one end to the other,” Rutowski said. “We actually filled the first prescription four hours after this started,” he said.
“We had so many people willing to help and carry boxes,” he said.
‘They fell from the sky’
Susan Hendrickson was worried sick about her skylights caving in.
It was the weekend after the back-to-back lake-effect storms, and carports and roofs all over the Brook Gardens mobile home park in Hamburg had collapsed as the weight of 6 feet and more of snow proved too much for the structures.
Hendrickson, a disabled single mother of three, saw that her skylights were collapsing and didn’t know how she would be able to keep the rapidly melting snow out of her house. She was frantically putting garbage cans around the home to catch the dripping water.
A friend in the mobile home park whose carport had collapsed posted a message for help on a Facebook page called WNY November 2014 Storm.
Three guys from Niagara Falls responded that they would be down first thing Sunday to help.
And they were.
Gary Drake, his brother-in-law Joe Schultz and their friend Bucky Barbaro started at Hendrickson’s friend’s place. She had been trapped inside her home by the damage to the carport.
Then they went to Hendrickson’s home and secured tarps over her skylights.
Then they went to help another woman.
“They did not charge me one single penny,” said Hendrickson, 50.
“They said: This is what we came for,” Hendrickson said. “They were just … they fell from the sky. I’ve never seen these guys before and said, ‘Well, have a nice Thanksgiving. I hope I see you again.’ But they’re from Niagara Falls.”
Bill Steele of Oshawa, Ont., was on his way back from Virginia with two Canadian friends when they were forced to get off the highway somewhere south of Buffalo.
“We were listening to satellite radio,” Steele said. “They don’t give local news. We drove right into the middle of this storm.”
They started looking for an alternate route and noticed a sign for Orchard Park, which Steele knew wasn’t too far from the border.
The trio ended up in the Five Corners area when their Nissan got stuck.
“It was blowing snow sideways like you wouldn’t believe,” Steele said.
A police officer stopped and told them they should stay in the car. A little while later, another officer came.
“You’d better find shelter. The storm isn’t getting any better,” the officer said.
Steele and his friends, Don Green and Phyllis Eaton, were wearing light fall coats but they had no choice except to try to hoof it to safety. A man near a McDonald’s started yelling to them to come there but the trio had seen a coffee shop on Southwestern Boulevard and decided they wanted to go there. But when they got to the door, the manager said the store was closed and turned them away.
The man at the McDonald’s was still yelling for them.
“Get in here!” he yelled.”
The trio began making their way to the fast-food restaurant.
“You can’t walk through that,” Steele recalled. “You’re pushing through a wall,” he said.
With the golden arches barely visible through the driving snow, Steele, 48, and his friends took turns at the lead, pushing away snow. He thinks it took them half an hour to make it to the McDonald’s.
“You know, I thought I was going to die.”
The night manager, Noah Hardin, let them in.
“You’re going to stay here tonight,” Hardin told them, and made them fresh hot coffee.
That was the Tuesday of the storm.
The trio ended up staying there until Friday.
A trucker and a few other stranded motorists, including members of a Brazilian rock band, eventually joined the Canadians.
When Hardin spotted someone outside, he’d bring them in and let them warm up.
He made them all Egg McMuffins, Chicken McNuggets, salads and fries and always made sure the coffee was fresh.
They in turn helped mop up all the melted snow, and kept the restaurant clean.
The stranded group spent the days eating, talking and making good use out of the restaurant’s Wi-Fi to keep in touch with worried family members.
By Friday, Steele, who has Type 2 diabetes, had run out of insulin. The roads were in more manageable shape and it was time for them to try to get home. The Canadians hugged Hardin and thanked him over and over. Steele can’t imagine he could ever thank him enough.
“He saved our lives,” Steele said. “He saved our lives. He saved our lives.”
Emailed plea for help
Carolyn Brusky was terrified for her 89-year-old mother.
Bernice Piechocki lives in South Buffalo, and Brusky was in St. Petersburg, Fla., watching the shocking images of Buffalo snowed under on cable news.
Her mother and Brusky’s sister were snowed in and could barely get the back door open.
Normally, neighbors were happy to help shovel them out, but it was clear everyone was having trouble getting out.
Brusky didn’t know what to do. After frantically calling around, she sent an email to Assemblyman Mickey Kearns.
The next day, she learned from her mother that the legislator showed up at the house in person. Brusky’s sister opened a window to talk to him. He asked if they were all right, and if there was anything he could do.
The next day, a plow came through to clear their streets.
“I don’t know if he had anything to do with that,” she said.
But it didn’t matter. The fact that he made the special trip to her mother’s was all she cared about.
“To me, he’s a hero.”
Snow shovel brigade
Like many people, Susan Cholewa got lucky during the Snowvember snowstorm.
Black Rock, where she is known as a hardworking community activist, got just a bit of snow. But she heard about friends hammered by the storm in South Buffalo and other communities, and she was determined to find a way to help.
“In the first days of the storm, this friend of mine was stuck in his home in South Buffalo, and his postings on Facebook kept getting more and more dire and desperate,” Cholewa said. “I said, ‘We have to do something to help people like him get out of their houses.’ ”
So on the night of Nov. 20, Cholewa started organizing the “Shovel Brigade Mob.” She enlisted her friend, Laura Kelly, director of the Old First Ward Community Center, to help organize the effort. Kelly agreed to use the community center as a staging area for the volunteers.
Using Facebook, organizers put out the call for people armed with shovels to go in and dig out people in South Buffalo on Saturday, Nov. 22. The event was a huge success, one that helped hundreds of South Buffalo families and got some positive national publicity for Western New York.
“We were hoping for about 50 people or so. We got 300,” Cholewa. “We went in that day and helped shovel out 400 homes that day. Some of these people had been trapped in their homes for days. Some of them were running out of food or medications.”
On a day of good deeds, many stand out in Cholewa’s memory.
“The volunteers shoveled out one guy who was 70 years old, and he said, ‘Can you help my two uncles, too? They’re in their 90s.’ So our people went over and shoveled his two uncles, too.”
Some volunteers came from as far away as Pittsburgh. Some brought food and water for the snow victims. Some even returned to South Buffalo the next day to help more families.
“The snow was starting to melt, and it was really heavy, but we got a lot done,” Cholewa said. “I’m proud of what we did. I think we tapped into something, an overwhelming need for help. We also tapped into a lot of people who wanted to find a way to help.”
Cholewa, who grew up in North Tonawanda and has worked as a French teacher at North Tonawanda High School for more than 25 years, said she really should not have been surprised by all the people who volunteered. Buffalo people are the best when it comes to helping others, she said. “I’m one of those suburbanites who moved to the city and fell in love with it,” she said.
Dan Herbeck contributed to this story. email: email@example.com